TROLLING A COUNTRY: Filipinos as Social Media Tools / by Ryan Buaron

Boracay1

Polish bloggers Anna and Agnesz weren't just prostituting themselves for petty 'likes', they had a mission in mind, take advantage of a country's hospitality and trash it big time for website traffic. At the end of the day, they were laughing their way to the bank.

Social Media Capital of the World

In the last decade, Filipinos have turned to social media to share stories and primarily to connect with friends and families, over 10 million of whom live overseas. As reported on the Vulcan Post, on average, Filipinos spend at least 53 hours in a week using social media platforms, that’s 11 more hours than the global average and the internet audience in the Philippines has been growing at a pace of 22% annually since 2012 - the fastest in Southeast Asia. With these statistics in mind, it’s no wonder that the country earned the tag, ‘Social Media Capital of the World.’ Philippine Twitter hashtags routinely make worldwide trends: football matches which single-handedly catapulted the virtually ignored national side, Azkals, to overnight stardom, to the most recent chatter on Pope Francis’s visit to the Philippines and Miss Philippines’ disastrous Colombian-made gown at the Miss Universe beauty pageant. Social media in the Philippines runs the whole gamut, a whole range in experience - it was the first to use Google through its cloud-sharing application as well as Twitter hashtags to respond to natural disasters way before it was appropriated in the Haiti quake. In short, it was a medium run organically by an entire country.

I literally grew up being fed with bad news through the media nearly every day of my life. And so is the case for the majority of Filipinos. The Philippines has grown so accustomed to bad PR that nearly every negative media report in any form is met with resignation, acceptance and oftentimes vigorous agreement regardless of whether there is any truth to it. In fact, the international press gets their dirt on the country from their local media partners. When I started promoting the Philippines in 2009, it was a response against exhausting discrimination and biases against the country, our destinations and our people. I wanted to show the other face that goes frequently unseen under the muck of negative reporting. The Next Escape’s Australian Co-Founder, Scott Munroe Allford noted this in an article written in 2010 at Tourism Paradise Philippines (tourism-philippines.com), while the country is far from perfect he felt ‘that the over promotion of the negative aspects of this country has managed to squash most of the good that comes out of the Philippines. I also view this as a vicious cycle which...erodes the international image of this nation further.’

‘The Philippine Spike’

However, what underpins this frenzy in the social media in the Philippines is more than a passionate desire to share and have a democratic voice when traditional media channels offer too little. At the root of this are the inherent truths about the Filipino society with its closely-knit, clannish and extended familial relationships within a very complicated historical context which saw waves of colonization and national upheavals. There is absolute method in the entire madness, and the Filipino social media phenomenon, which I call the ‘Philippine Spike’, isn’t anything new. It is a behavior embedded in the national consciousness. We share our collective experiences, we share our collective angst. It was to address our core needs: relationships, learning, progression, diversion and recognition. While these needs are universal, Filipinos were some of the first to harness social media and appropriate it into their daily lives. Filipino social media strategist/publicist/blogger Maria Irene Aserios (Mindanaoan.com) agrees, ‘Filipinos are emotional people. This has benefits (we value relationships be that with family, friends, colleagues) and disadvantages (makes us fragile and susceptible to jumping the gun without really trying to delve into the issue first).’ She also cited the current Manila Bulletin #BeFullyInformed ad campaign as an example - where a small overpass that was intended to teach children about road safety went viral and was bashed for being a ‘stupid’ project.

The Philippine Spike attracted the attention of many in the media industry. It was a hallyu of sorts. From New York Times to Buzzfeed and Mashable who recently launched their Philippine editions, Philippine-related articles are expected to get traction. With cheap travel steadily on the rise, many imagined and fashioned themselves as writers and travel photographers - a trade that used to be in the exclusive realm of those in the likes of the elite corps of National Geographic Magazine. Previously ignored by most travel writers, the Philippines became the perfect place to jumpstart an otherwise vapid and poorly written travel blog and get some pretty good media mileage. The word was out, if you want to boost traffic, blog about the Philippines. This was the ‘Philippine Spike’. With nearly half a million followers on my Tourism Paradise Philippines Facebook and Twitter Pages, I get daily pitches on photographs and stories from mostly foreign bloggers and a few from the local blogs and photographers. With the amount of time spent on social media and the amount of engagement and reach - the Filipino audience is a gold mine. Thanks to confirmation bias, negative ones viral as quickly too, sending in more traffic and cash to these websites. It increasingly became fashionable to troll an entire country. It is terribly unethical, but it sure pays and unwittingly, Filipinos have become part of this whole shenanigan. Irene confirms the Philippine Spike especially in the backdrop of ever increasing internet penetration in the country. She further explains, that while ad traffic from the Philippines doesn’t pay as much as US and/or UK traffic, the numbers will help spike a blog’s pagerank. ‘This is what’s important especially if the blog is fairly new or if the blog wants to attract advertisers. A lot of ad sites ask for pagerank/Alexa ranking. It doesn’t matter if content was poorly written. You have captured an audience and if content is controversial, that audience will come back again and again.’

‘Selfish and Ruthless’

A few bloggers expressed frustration over this trend as the actions of the few, like the Polish bloggers, cast a long shadow of disrepute on other legitimate bloggers. One of them is German blogger Philipp Dukatz (ESCapology.eu), who acknowledged that articles like these ‘can seriously hurt the economy of that country since other travelers might go by the judgment of these biased articles and decide not to visit the country. That is terrible and to accept these negative outcomes which might affect thousands of people just for your own benefit is selfish and plain ruthless.’ One forgets that tourism is part of the economic portfolio and  in a country like the Philippines with a significant number of the population who are very economically sensitive, Anna’s and Agnesz’s actions have real world consequences for many people who depend on tourism as a way of getting food to the table or sending their children to school. Unfortunately, they won’t be the last as Singaporean blogger Keith Yuen (Travel Inspiration 360) admitted that bloggers like these know they can turn into overnight sensations as there are ‘too many “successful” examples’ with many ‘becoming successful for the wrong reason(s) and earn bucks (sic) from advertising’. American blogger Derek Freal (theHolidaze), enthused, ‘Well, truthfully, I didn’t enjoy Boracay for many of (the) same reasons Anna didn’t - same reasons (why I didn’t like Bali (Indonesia). Or Koh Phi Phi (Thailand). I don’t write about such places, no matter how strongly I feel. Using a biased title just as clickbait is low - very low.’  Where do you draw the line? - ‘When expectations are unrealistic. Take the Polish blogger, for instance. 2-3 days in an island doesn’t make you a local expert,’ Irene explains.

Keith concedes that ‘many who have yet to visit PH (Philippines) may buy in (to Anna's and Agnesz's drivel)... perhaps (the) majority’. Another Polish blogger, Krystian Klottka (Amazing Asia) disagreed with the actions of the other two, and confessed, ‘I feel a bit ashamed that my countrymen disparaged your country. Trust me, they are in the minority and there is a lot of Polish people who are in love with (the) Philippines.’

Above. A screenshot of a conversation the author had with a North American travel  blogger, who prefered to remain anonymous.

But is it worth it really? Keith perfectly pointed out that it all came down to ‘personal upbringing and personality’ and some wouldn’t think about the ethical considerations and would have no qualms about throwing people (or entire countries) under the bus for website traffic. Would companies and organizations still advertise and be willing to be identified with your brand knowing full well that you have a defective moral compass? Would companies and organizations be willing to align themselves with someone who would so willingly undermine others for the sake of padding numbers to show something to their advertisers?

It does take two to tango, aside from a responsibility to one’s audience, the reader must also be properly informed at the quality and the veracity of the material. Philipp sums it up, ‘it is every reader’s individual task to deal and critically question these things (sic), (and) that goes for every type of media; we are talking about a general media competence here. But for a lot of people nowadays, that is hard to obtain.’

It is very unfortunate to point out that a lot of people would willingly abandon all sense at the drop of a hat and accept hokum without any critical thought. Perhaps it is cultural, perhaps it is the (lack of quality) education, it’s also plausible that it is the result of the internet being a medium which offers a veil of anonymity and disengagement from responsibility or it could be a combination of all three. Regardless of what it is, it is morally unacceptable that this weakness is being taken advantage of by some of these disreputable bloggers who sell themselves online like common streetwalkers for cheap, website traffic. So I say, shame, shame, shame.

 

Dave Ryan A. Buaron, Owner and Co-Founder THE NEXT ESCAPE: TRAVEL, ARTS, SPORTS AND LIFESTYLE